Tag Archives: photography

Awoiska van der Molen: Sequester

In short, Sequester is one of the best Photobooks I’ve seen in a long time. Here’s why…

Sequester the book

Awoiska van der Molen’s book Squester

…I use a 5-point scale when I’m deciding whether I like a cup of coffee (Yes, this is a photo blog not a coffee blog, but bear with me). Here’s how it goes:

  • Yuk, tip it down the sink
  • Nah, that was too much of an endurance test
  • Well, someone might like it but it’s not for me
  • Hmm, nice but rather 1-dimensional; something’s missing or dischordant
  • Yummy, I could drink that again!

Then I realised I use pretty much the same criteria when I’m reading a photobook or visiting an exhibition. I know others who are more analytical in their approach, and a lot of people who are less so. As a practitioner I know that there is a danger of over-analysing my own work, at least while I am creating it, but I think that at least some enquiring thought about my own and others’ work helps me learn and improve, so I shall try my coffee criteria on photography for a while and see whether it works out.

There aren’t many coffees photobooks that make it to the Yummy point of my scale but Sequester is one of them. The title comes from Awoiska van der Molen‘s desire to isolate herself on the Canary Islands with a camera and film for periods of introspection where she seems to be using landscape and the photographic process as a metaphor for her thoughts and a process for artistic development. She acts instinctively while taking the images and enjoys the delayed gratification of film processing but this also allows her mind to work on the memory, so post-visualisation is an important part of her work. All the images in this book are consistently melanistic (to use an appropriately organic term) but in this instance I don’t find the dark tones depressing but rather they inspire me to look more closely, to enquire more deeply into the hidden detail of the shadows and to appreciate the rare quality of the few highlights. Van der Molen describes her images as not so much representing a moment in time but more part of a continuum; evoking a mood is what she aims for.

Awoiska van der Molen speaking at The Photographers' Gallery, London

Awoiska van der Molen speaking at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, recently

She photographs in short bursts of about 3 weeks at a time. The first week is spent exploring then by weeks 2 and 3 she is ready to be productive. For the images in Sequester she returned to the Canary Islands several times. It is hard to say why she responds to some landscapes and not others but Spain and The Canaries appeal whereas Italy, for example does not. It seems to be related to the impact that man has had: she prefers a light, understated influence rather than obvious layers of history.

Original photograph by Awoiska van der Molen

Images alone don’t make a book – they have to work with the construction, layout, paper, printing and typography, and that’s what makes this book special. The designer, Hans Gremmen, has done a brilliant job on this within the constraints of commercial production. A master stroke was including every third section printed in white ink on black paper. My main criticism is for the way some images bleed across the gutter to the opposite page. This normally ruins the photograph’s carefully considered composition however van der Molen’s primary concern is not for conventional composition but for tones, light and shade, and mood. So in this instance I have to forgive what I normally consider bad practice in the interest of bleeding the image off the edge of the page, which is far more important here as it implies the image being a window into a bigger world.

Sequester is up there with the yummiest of photobooks but if photographs are inherently history then photobooks are even more so (Sequester took about 3 years to publish). Awoiska’s photography has evolved since these images were made and I look forward to following this artist’s journey through her personal landscapes in the future.

Matej Sitar’s page-turning video of Sequester is at https://vimeo.com/122460044

Awoiska van der Molen has images on show at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, as a nominee for 2017 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize until 11 June.

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Christopher Thomas: New York Sleeps

newYorkSleeps

The cover of New York Sleeps by Christopher Thomas. 310 x 285 x 23mm. 160pp. Revised and expanded edition 2016. Prestel Verlag. My first impression is of a New York that I don’t recognise. Sure, I recognise the places, but where are the people? As Frank Sinatra sang: “New York, New York. I want to wake up in a city that never sleeps.”

Right from the start this is a disconcerting book. There is a consistency of vision and technique that makes it a single body of work even though the photographs span 8 years. The sequencing of the images is clear and evidential in its logic, and the print and paper quality is gorgeous. Including the Polaroid film edges in every image give them a ring of authenticity and leads us to make the assumption we are seeing the whole, unadulterated image, and yet the lack of people gives them an other-worldly feel. The more pages I turn the more I have a premonition that some terrible instantaneous event has happened to make everyone disappear while leaving the lights on and the fountains running with only the camera remaining as witness. It’s not so much New York Sleeping as New York Depopulated.

The more I read New York Sleeps the more I find a number of tensions running through it: these are black and white images of a colourful subject but is this done for artistic purpose or to give a documentary impression?; there is a studied static feel to the images, which shatters our preconception of New York as a dynamic city; finally the lack of people lends the images a dream-like surreal atmosphere that is heightened by the time exposure blur in many of the photos.

timesSquare

Times Square. Not a typical image from the book, but one of my favorites. It breaks the rules: the highlights are bleached out, the greys carry little information and the main centre of attention is a trash can. Could it be aliens landing? 

After several readings I began to see it increasingly as a work of fiction (or perhaps ‘dream’ is a more appropriate word, given the title) so I decided to treat the book like a storyboard for a movie. It provides the raw material for the readers’ imaginations to find their own answers, make up their own stories and resolve the tensions. To treat this book as a linear set of sequenced images (as good as they are) would be a waste; there are layers beneath this that are worth exploring and for this I would definitely recommend it.

Linda Lashford’s Songlines

Linda Lashford travels for a living, and photographs as she travels. Hers are not simple documentary records of places though: Linda photographs by theme and the images in this exhibition “Songlines” are grouped into Intimations of Landscape, The Splintered Coast, and Trappings of Light. Her images are on display at the Joe Cornish Gallery, North Yorkshire, UK until 23 September 2015.

As you might guess from the title, Intimations of Landscape are intimate semi-abstract photographs of aspects of landscape such as water, distressed paint or mist using a limited tonal range and colour palatte. Most show close-up details that imply much larger landscapes.

4 images by Linda Lashford

4 images from Linda Lashford’s Intimations of Landscape series.

Most of the 12 images in this series have little in the way of compositional elements to hold them together or guide the eye; the viewer is left to wander through each image and imagine what lies beyond the frame. These aren’t images of something but rather about something. That “something” is really for the viewer to decide based on the emotions and memories the images evoke. The images hover between a physical reality and a spiritual plane. As Minor White would have said: it’s not what is photographed that’s significant but what else is photographed.

3 images from The Splintered Coast series by Linda Lashford

3 images from The Splintered Coast series by Linda Lashford

The Splintered Coast contains 6 studies of the coastlines of Cornwall, South Wales and Brittany. Of all Linda’s images these are the most anchored in reality, the most literal of the themes. Unlike her other series, most of these contain horizons – perhaps it is this horizontal reference plane that implies the reality and makes it difficult to make the mental jump to any metaphoric plane. Instead I found myself comparing the similarities and differences of the coastlines depicted, which made it, at least for me, the least satisfying of the series.

The beautifully titled Trappings of Light series was taken in an abandoned cork factory in Portugal. “Oh no, not another abandoned-factory-stroke-urban-decay project” you may be thinking. Well no, it isn’t another me-too project about decay; Linda’s control of the photographic process and her eye for isolating and composing details out of visual noise show their strength in this series of 8 images. Form and texture interact with controlled abandon; there is light and shade but the highlights have detail and the shadows never block up. The light is without doubt trapped by these images and give pleasure and intrigue to the viewer that, like Intimations of Landscape, is rewarded by lingering with each photograph in a meditative frame of mind.

6 images from Songlines

Top row: 3 images from Trappings of Light. Bottom row: 3 images from Intimations of Landscape. Photographs by Linda Lashford

Songlines is a varied and satisfying set of images from a talented photographer. My only reservation isn’t about the images but about their display: the presentation and framing of each image is excellent but the hanging splits the series between walls and floors in the gallery, making them less coherent as bodies of work, and appears to associate images by superficial visual similarity rather than developing an underlying theme or narrative. This is understandable as the gallery is quite crowded with images from various photographers and tends towards a hard-working emporium of pictures rather than an art gallery, but it is a commercial enterprise and if that’s what’s needed to keep it running then I’m not going to knock it. Just control your expectations if you go there – and I recommend that you do!

What a photofest weekend! Photo London and Offprint London

The bank-holiday weekend of 21-25 May 2015 saw a raft of photographic happenings in London. The two big ones were Photo London and Offprint London. I attended both. Was it worth it? You bet!

Somerset House

Somerset House, home of Photo London 2015.

Photo London was based at Somerset House, had 70 galleries from 20 countries participating, along with 10 publishers and 3 special exhibitors. For me this isn’t a huge draw as I find the gallery scene rather rarefied and certainly out of my price bracket, but it’s a good opportunity to take the pulse of the photography collectors’ market and to see which names and styles are in vogue at the moment. It is not a free show; the entrance fee is pitched high enough to keep away the casual viewer and other oiks like me who can’t afford gallery prices. Nevertheless, I took the plunge and spent 5 hours immersed in some wonderful images.

Somerset House made an excellent venue, with its characterful small but linked rooms with lots of wall space making it ideal for the various galleries to display. Being split over 5 floors meant getting plenty of exercise on the stairs, though less than ideal for those with mobility difficulties. There were a few galleries selling historic images but the majority were promoting contemporary photographers. For me this balance was about right. The V&A also had a well-curated display of images from its collection called Beneath the Surface that continues until 24 August 2015.

Guns Love. 2014. Thomas Mailaender. cCopyright the artist.

Guns Love. 2014. Thomas Mailaender. Copyright the artist.

There were, of course, a huge number of excellent images (as well as some I wouldn’t give wall space to). If I have to pick one stand-out artist it is Thomas Mailaender‘s cyanotypes on the Roman Road stand. Although all the images used the cyanotype process the images were not process-driven but displayed a repertoire of playfully diverse ideas executed in an original but not gratuitous way.

Offprint London

Offprint London in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall

Offprint London was my main interest because of my long-running enthusiasm for the photobook. Several people I spoke to said that it was very similar to Offprint Paris in size and scope, though I noticed that some of the more established publishers had decided to exhibit at Photo London instead of Offprint. It was great to see indie publishers from across Europe and even a few from across The Pond! Not all exhibitors showed photobooks but these I just ignored.

There has been a huge increase in the number of photobooks produced recently compared with only 10 years ago, and the number of exhibitors and the size of the crowds at Offprint only serves to reinforce this. Unfortunately there has also been a huge increase in the number of poor photobooks, and Offprint had its fair share of those too. It’s great that photographers want to make photobooks and we all have to start somewhere but some of the work here shouldn’t be inflicted on a wider world. There is too much ego-driven publication and not enough art or craft value in a lot of photobooks today. Having got that off my chest I should also say that there are a lot of good quality books for sale at Offprint. Many are commercially published, which is fine, but it was the artisan self-publishers that took my eye. In particular I liked the work of Jane & Jeremy and Highchair Editions. Their art-and-craft blended approach and interesting design ideas were eye-catching and went beyond what would be expected from commercially-produced books, which is exactly the sort of photobook work I hoped to find at a show like this. So well done to you, and congratulations to Simon Baker and Tate Modern for holding Offprint London – I will definitely attend if it runs again next year!

Speaking of which, Photo London has already announced next year’s dates as 19-22 May 2016. Fingers crossed that Offprint will also repeat.

 

Jeff Wall at the Canada House Gallery, London

I came across this show in the Canadian High Commission by accident. I was walking through the north west corner of London’s Trafalgar Square, noticed that the Canada House Gallery had just opened and they’d chosen Canadian photographer Jeff Wall as the inaugural artist. The gallery is open, via a security check, Mondays to Saturdays 11.00 – 17.45 until 15th May 2015.

Jeff Wall's exhibition at the Canadian Embassy, London

Jeff Wall’s exhibition at the Canadian Embassy, London

It’s a one-room gallery and Jeff Wall’s works are decidedly in the over-sized category so you don’t get many to the metre – only five works in this case, plus some blurb. The photos seem too large for such a compact space though that’s the way Wall likes us to experience his images: to become almost part of the scene. Personally, and I would have preferred to see more, smaller works in what is quite a small space, but hey, it’s good to see another gallery opening for the visual arts and displaying photographs.

The images are an eclectic mix with no obvious theme or relationship other than a grab-shot quality to them and yet apparently they are very deliberate and considered. As Sara Knelman says in her leaflet accompanying the exhibition: ‘Wall works somewhere between the possibilities of capturing and constructing the world around us.’

If you are in central London it’s worth popping in to see the photos – and support the Canadians in their effort to open a new gallery space!

OnLandscape conference: craft versus art

OnLandscape, an on-line photography magazine, organised a weekend conference from 21-23 November 2014. I don’t think of myself as a landscape photographer but walking and photography have been synonymous for most of my life so I thought I’d attend. Here are my thoughts.

It's a fungus. No, it's a highly eroded landscape. No it's avast underground city. Yes, it's a metaphor! ©Malcolm Raggett

It’s a fungus! No, it’s a highly eroded landscape! No it’s a vast underground city! Yes, it’s a metaphor!! ©Malcolm Raggett

A glance at the OnLandscape Web site and the type of photographs that many of the contributing photographers take shows the narrow definition of “Landscape” to be expected at the conference. We’re talking “Natural Landscape” here: the urban or built environment is anathema to most of these photographers, as is any sort of environmental activism. The overwhelming aesthetic derives from that long thread stretching back from today’s Joe Cornish and Paul Gallagher (colour and black & white respectively) through Eliot Porter and Ansel Adams to the American Sublime and the English Landscape painters.

Most of the conference speakers (all male, I note) talked about the business, craft and practicalities of their photography, though David Ward considered cultural origins of colour, Rafael Rojas gave an excellent analysis of his approach to fine art photography and Jem Southam showed how he used the photographic process to satisfy his curiosity about contested spaces, narrative and metaphor. Southam’s talk was the closest we got to offering an alternative aesthetic in landscape photography and, judging from my conversations with other delegates afterwards, caused strong division of opinions amongst those who heard it.

Pushing a little harder at this division, there are those who think that a photograph should depict the subject in front of the camera in the most conventionally beautiful way possible. The recent winner of Take-a-View’s Landscape Photographer of the Year was held as an example of this, and two of his prints displayed at the conference did show a distinct tendency towards oil-painting qualities. I didn’t gather opinions from everyone at the conference but my perception is that the majority of those present fell into this “conventional beauty” camp. The concept that what a photograph is of and what a photograph is about can be entirely different hasn’t occurred to many viewers, or that a series of images can be greater than the sum of the parts was only acknowledged in a superficial way (such as a book being a collection of someone’s best photographs).

orange cone by yellow rape

Is it a road cone by a field of rape? Or is it a king leading his army into battle? Oh no, it’s another metaphor! ©Malcolm Raggett

The photograph has a powerful hold in many peoples’ minds as a reproduction of reality. Much has been written to dispel this myth but still it persists, perhaps because that is how most of us serve our photographic apprenticeship: recording photographically as an aid to memory. Yet one of the characteristics that is unique to our species (as far as we currently know) is our use of metaphor. It seems to be inate, starting with children seeing clouds that are shaped like animals through fictions that represent real life, to lines on paper that represent gods. Why then can’t aspiring photographers make the same associations in theirs and other photographs? Perhaps because the photographer never intended it? Or because the viewer never thought to push themselves outside their normal mental comfort zone?

As David Clapp pointed out in his talk, we strive for originality within familiarity but this diagram indicates we are not likely to find it there!

As David Clapp pointed out in his talk, we strive for originality within familiarity but this diagram indicates we are not likely to find it there!

I wonder if Jem Southam’s unuttered plea for delegates to think more deeply about their photography, to let go of the camera-as-craft and use it as a tool of enquiry, will have fallen on deaf ears. If a few people are encouraged along this line of thought then I think the conference will have been a success. It certainly helped me to see the different levels and diversity there is even within the narrowly defined scope of the conference. The conference was subtitled “A Meeting of Minds”; I do hope those minds have been encourages out of their comfort zones!

Processing C41 colour film in black & white chemistry

Summary

I have had promising results developing colour print film in standard black & white chemicals. Not only is it identical to processing black & white film but the fine grain and wide exposure latitude of C41 colour film is preserved in a black & white negative.

35mm colour print film can still be obtained in most city high streets, at least in the UK, and provides an available and low-cost alternative to regular b&w negatives for those willing to process and digitise their film.

The test

I had some out-of-date 35mm C41 colour print film (Kodak GC-400, a cheap, consumer-level ISO400 film, no longer available) and wondered what would happen if I processed it in my normal black & white developer, Rodinal (actually ADOX Adonal, which is identical to the original AGFA formula), so I fired off a roll of the colour film followed by a roll of black & white film at the same ISO400 setting, which I processed in the same chemistry for comparison. I used the same development time for the C41 film as the Massive Dev Chart recommends for Ilford XP2 (a C41 b&w negative film), so if you want to use a different developer go ahead!

The C41 film was given 18 minutes at 20C in Rodinal diluted 1+25, 1 minute stop bath, 5 minutes fix.

Ilford HP5+ was given 6 minutes at 20C in Rodinal diluted 1+25, 1 minute stop bath, 5 minutes fix.

The films were scanned using the same scanner and software (Epson V750 and Vuescan). Vuescan was set to auto-expose and give 2 passes for each frame, which I’ve found significantly reduces noise. The levels were adjusted in Photoshop to give a full tonal range on the histogram but no other manipulation. Samples for comparison are shown below.

The results

Inspection of the films under a loupe showed that the colour negative had low contrast and a long tonal scale together with fine grain; this is consistent with expectations for standard C41 processing. The black & white film showed normal tonal range (it was a dull day when both films were shot) but more distinctive grain. Here are the scans from the 35mm frames. The cropped images are an identically-sized area (10 x 7mm) of the frame:

C41 film full frame

Kodak GC-400 colour film at ISO400 processed in black & white chemistry, full frame

HP5 full frame

Ilford HP5+ at ISO400 processed in same black & white chemistry, full frame

C41 film cropped to show grain structure

C41 film cropped to show grain structure

HP5 cropped to show grain structure

HP5 cropped to show grain structure

Conclusion

C41 colour film can be processed in standard black & white chemicals to good effect. Although only one film type has been tested it is reasonable to assume that other C41 films will respond in the same way as they are formulated for standard machine processing.

The wide tonal range and fine grain characteristics associated with colour print film is retained when processed in black & white chemistry, though only a black & white negative is obtained on the orange film base of the C41 film. This is excellent for scanning but is likely to be problematic for anyone wanting to darkroom-print onto gelatine-silver paper.

If you need b&w film urgently or want to use cheap film to give black & white negatives for scanning, C41 colour films like Kodak Color Plus (ISO200), Agfa Vista 400 or any film from the Fuji Superia range (ISO200 to ISO1600) should be a lower-cost alternative to black & white film, especially if you can get short-dated film over the Internet (short-dated colour film should still be fine for black & white work as any colour shifts over time are irrelevant).

If you want gritty grain, well-tested development times for push and pull processing, or the ability to darkroom print from the negative, it would be best to stick with black & white negative film.